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United States Senate

The United States Senate is the upper house of the U.S. Congress, smaller than the United States House of Representatives. Together, they compose the legislative branch of the United States government.

Each state elects two senators through statewide elections. The Constitution of the United States endows the U.S. Senate, in addition to its duty of passing all legislation through Congress, with the exclusive responsibility of confirming certain Presidential appointments, including federal judges and cabinet secretaries as part of the system of checks and balances. The Senate is charged with trying presidents, federal (including Supreme Court) justices, as well as other executive-level officers who have been impeached by a vote of the House. The approval of a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required for the ratification of treaties.

The Senate chamber is located in the north wing of the U. S. Capitol building, in Washington, D.C.


Composition and elections

With two Senators from each state, the Senate presently has 100 members. For details, see the current list of United States Senators. When it first convened on March 4, 1789, the Senate had 21 members--two from each of the 11 states that had ratified the Constitution to that point except New York, which did not seat its second Senator until July 16. Senators serve for terms of six years; the terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years: each time there are elections in about 33 states for one of the two seats. They coincide with the elections for the House of Representatives; alternately they coincide with the presidential election; when they do not, they are called mid-term elections.

Before 1913, state legislatures appointed the Senators (an example of indirect election); since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators have been elected directly by voters. Senators are elected by their state as a whole; if both Senate seats are contested in one election year, the elections will be separate and all voters in the state will cast votes for one candidate in each of the two races. Because of the staggered terms, this will only occur when a Senator fails to complete a full six year term due to death or resignation, or when a state joins the union, in which case one of the two usually serves a four year term.

If a vacancy occurs between elections, generally the governor of the state appoints a replacement to serve as senator until the next biennial election.

As put forth in Article 1, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, a senator must be: at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for the past nine years, and reside in the state he or she represents at the time of election.

The Senate has the ability, by a two-thirds vote, to expel one of its members. This has not occurred since the Civil War, although this is partly because many Senators choose to resign before being expelled. See List of United States Senators expelled or censured.

Composition during the 109th Congress (2005-2007)

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+ Republicans: 55
+ Democrats: 44
+ Independent: 1 (James Jeffords (I-VT) votes with the Democrats on procedural matters)

See also:

Specific powers

The Senate, like the House of Representatives, can initiate almost any kind of legislation within the competence of Congress. After adoption by the Senate, a bill will then be considered by the House of Representatives. If the House adopts a bill, it is sent to the Senate for its approval. The Senate, unlike the House, does not have the power to initiate revenue bills, but it has wide discretion to amend them once they pass the House. Depending on Constitutional interpretation, the Senate could be able to initiate appropriation bills, but the House of Representatives disputes this. Whenever the Senate adopts an appropriation bill, the House simply returns it to the Senate, thus defeating it, a maneuver known as "blue-slipping."

Despite this difference in legislative power, the Senate certainly has the most power when it comes to the checks on the executive branch, which is threefold:


The President can only appoint certain United States officers with Senatorial consent. While this does not include all Federal officers, it certainly includes all the important ones. The list is fairly extensive and includes heads of the federal executive departments and federal agencies, ambassadors, consuls, judges, United States Attorneys (including the Solicitor General), marshals, and commissioned officers in the Regular Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. If the Senate does not consent to the appointee, the appointee cannot become an officer, but a President can decide not to appoint someone after they received Senatorial confirmation.


The President can only ratify treaties with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. These treaties that receive consent and are signed by the President become part of the supreme law of the United States and can even go beyond the powers of U.S. Congress and legislate on issues normally reserved for state governments, though they cannot invalidate any part of the United States Constitution.

The definition of treaty under the United States Constitution is somewhat different and more restrictive than the usage of the term in international law. The President acting on his own constitutional powers can conclude executive agreements and Congress can pass normal legislation concluding a congressional-executive agreement. These items are considered treaties under international law, but are not defined as such under United States domestic law.

Impeachment trials

The trial of President ()
The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton (1999)

The Senate is the sole body granted with the power to remove from office (following a conviction) federal officials who have been served with Articles of Impeachment by the House of Representatives. The Senate sits as jury, with either the President of the Senate or President pro tempore presiding. If a sitting President is being tried, the Chief Justice of the United States must preside over the proceedings. Senators must sit on oath or affirmation. The accused can be convicted only by a two-thirds majority of members present. A conviction on any one article results in the party being removed from office immediately. Additionally, the Senate may stipulate that the party be prohibited from holding any subsequent elected office. The Senate may not impose any further punishment upon the convicted; however, the convicted person may face further legal penalties and punishments after a trial in a court of law. Failure to reach the supermajority on any article results in acquittal.



The Vice President of the United States also serves as President of the Senate and is empowered with presiding over all proceedings and breaking tie votes. However, in practice, the Vice President rarely enters the Senate chamber, and the members of the Senate choose a President pro tempore (usually the most senior member of the majority party) to stand in the Vice President's absence. However, even the President pro tempore delegates his duties as presiding officer in the Senate chamber to junior members because (unlike in the House) the presiding officer is accorded little authority.

The agenda of the Senate is determined by the Majority floor leader (leader of the party with a majority of seats), who is assisted by a Majority whip (responsible for "whipping" party members in line). Their counterparts across the aisle are the Minority floor leader and Minority whip.

When the major parties are evenly split, the party affiliation of the Vice President, as the tie-breaker vote, determines which is the majority party.

Presiding officers

Position Name Party State Since
President U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney (ex officio) Republican Wyoming 2001
President Pro Tempore Theodore F. Stevens Republican Alaska 2003

Majority leadership

Position Name Party State Since
Majority Leader William H. Frist Republican Tennessee 2002
Republican Whip A. Mitchell McConnell Jr. Republican Kentucky 2003
Republican Conference Chairman Richard J. Santorum Republican Pennsylvania 2001
Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon L. Kyl Republican Arizona 2003
Republican Conference Secretary Kay Bailey Hutchison Republican Texas 2001
Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Elizabeth Dole Republican North Carolina 2005

Minority leadership

Position Name Party State Since
Minority Leader Harry Reid Democratic Nevada 2005
Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin Democratic Illinois 2005
Democratic Conference Chairman Harry Reid (also Minority Leader) Democratic Nevada 2005
Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron L. Dorgan Democratic North Dakota 1999
Democratic Conference Secretary Debbie Stabenow Democratic Michigan 2005
Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer Democratic New York 2005

Procedural quirks

Unlike the United States House of Representatives, the Senate has no strict rules regarding debate, and one strategy used by senators to kill a bill is the filibuster, an intentional extension of debate on the bill, which prevents it from coming to a vote.

The first ongoing filibuster in the Senate began on February 18, 1841 and lasted until March 11. The longest individual filibuster speech in the U.S. Senate was delivered by Strom Thurmond. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He began by reading the entire text of each state's election laws.

In 1917 the power of the filibuster was reduced in theory by the cloture rule, in which 60 senators can sign a petition to end debate (the initial version of the rule called for 2/3 but that was later reduced to 3/5; the move to reduce it from 2/3 to 3/5 was itself fillibustered). Although cloture is uncommonly invoked, it does form an important part of Senate procedure as the threat of a filibuster can cause a bill or nomination to be amended or withdrawn. This is important because the minority party in the Senate usually has more than 40 seats, making it possible for the minority party to block a bill or a presidental nomination from passage if they feel extremely strongly about it. Ironically, since the implementation of the cloture rule filibusters have actually become more common.

Historically, the Senate was the place of slow deliberation, yet it has begun to function more like the House. Since 2001 much Senate business has been conducted through a process known as "Reconciliation." Under "reconciliation," bills are governed by special rules that strictly limit debate and forbid amendment.

Reconciliation was not used for several years after it was created in 1974, and was only used every few years in the 1980s and 1990s – usually for extremely contentious budgets. Currently it is being used for most important legislation. Using reconciliation, the Senate can push through a sweeping piece of legislation that may only casually be germane to the budget.

Aside from reconciliation, the Senate uses less time for debate now than it did in decades past. For instance, in the late 1970s and early 1980s debate on the Panama Canal treaties lasted from February 6th to April 18th; debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act lasted 21 days; debate on an energy bill 23 days; 19 days were spent debating a trade bill; and 18 days on a farm bill. In 1981, Reagan's tax cuts were debated for twelve days and amended 118 times. By contrast, debate on the 2002 Iraq War resolution only lasted five days and debate on George W. Bush's tax cuts were debated for even fewer days, and almost no amendments were allowed. (Losing America, 175)

See also: U.S. Senate procedures


Much of the business of the Senate is done in Congressional committees. Committees usually have their own staffs, separate from the staffs of individual members. Committees often have subcommittees. Each committee has a chairperson and a ranking minority leader.

Because the Senate is smaller, the committees within the Senate are generally less powerful than the corresponding committees in the House. The exceptions to this are the Judiciary Committee which reviews Presidential appointments to federal judgeships, and the Foreign Relations Committee which reviews treaties. See also: List of Senate committees

Control of Senate committees is almost always by seniority within the majority party, but there is now a four-term limit. Hubert Humphrey once described this privilege as the “most sacred cow in the legislative zoo.” A committee chairman used to remain in power even if he was senile or never attended the Senate. In 1946, 81 year old Arthur Capper of Kansas became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, even though “he could neither make himself understood, nor understand others.” Also in the 1940s, Carter Glass of Virginia “chaired” Appropriations, even though he had not appeared in the Senate since 1942. Nevertheless, starting in the 1970s, there have been a few occasions when seniority was bypassed.

No bill can come out of committee without the committee chairman’s consent. In the past, committee chairmen were more forceful in exerting this privilege than they are today, but there are still chairmen who frustrate the will of the majority of their own party. Jesse Helms, for instance, was notorious for using his perch on the Foreign Relations committee to stop legislation he opposed, often dealing with the United Nations. Helms reveled in the nickname “Senator No.”

Earlier in Senate history, prior to some reorganizations, particularly an important one in the mid-20th century, the number of standing committees was much greater than it is today. There were separate committees for areas such as Canadian relations, infectious diseases, even "Engrossed Bills"; a cursory reading of early biographies from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress reveals that until this reorganization, nearly all members of the majority party were chairmen of a committee. Many of these were subsequently merged, reduced to subcommittee status under another committee, or abolished entirely.

See also: List of U.S. Senate committees

"Senior"/"junior" division

The senator from each state with the longer tenure is known as the "senior senator" and carries some additional responsibilities to their state's constituents; however, this does not necessarily indicate a hierarchy in which the senior senator has direct authority over the junior senator.

See also

External links

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